Friday, 4 June 2010

Pop can wait... Thoughts on the new Anathema LP.

“Life is not the opposite of death. Birth is the opposite of death. Life is eternal.”

A hardcore Anathema fan, and I like to include myself amongst them, waits patiently for the next Anathema album for years at a time, knowing that the music contained therein will inspire them, give them food for thought, and make them realise how precious life is, and often how fragile and saddening it can also be. A new Anathema album is a big event in my life, and many others; it gives me a chance to stand perfectly still for its duration, lock myself away from the world, and face my emotions head on. Because only Anathema, through the medium of atmospheric rock, can make music that I can truly relate to, on a deeply personal level. I don’t know how they do it.

Things are a bit different this time round however. It’s been 7 long years since the lonely, isolated “A Natural Disaster” was released, and in that time, those in Anathema, lead singer Danny in particular, have had some sort of revelation, discovered the path to some state of nirvana. I don’t think they quite found God (their death metal past has probably made it nigh on impossible for them ever to do that), but they found something else, something beautiful that gave them hope, helped them to let go of their past worries and depressions.

Now, for a band that made a career out of writing songs expressing fear, regret, isolation and mourning that spoke to the hearts of hundreds of thousands of troubled, lost individuals across Europe, to suddenly “get happy” is certainly a risk. But it’s not like they don’t deserve to, it’s been a long journey. Anyone that remembers that dingy, smothering riff that opened “...And I Lust” on their first EP way back in 1992 wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that Anathema were a very different band back then: 5 young and angry Liverpudlians, desperate to express their sadness and anger; it’s no surprise that the bittersweet underground death/doom metal scene was an easy route for them to take.

But on that same EP, you just listen to the maudlin guitar pickings of the earth shatteringly depressing “Everwake”, as a haunting female voice sings of relief in suicide. Anathema were never a band to take their emotions lightly, it’s not a surprise they outgrew the often insincere and shallow doom metal scene. Listening to 1995’s “The Silent Enigma” and 1996’s “Eternity”, the records were Anathema: “the metal band” became Anathema: “the rock band”, you can hear the musical ideas bursting out, the band desperate to express themselves further but not having the tools within the ‘metal’ genre to really do themselves justice.

And then came “Alternative 4”, and eventually, just before the turn of the millennium, the glorious, spectacular, heartbreakingly passionate “Judgement”. Anathema had found their feet and were beginning to tell their fans exactly how they felt. No longer did that have to worry about heavy riffs and ‘sick’ or ‘brutal’ vocals; this Anathema used a sustained piano note to express despair, and a solo violin to express loneliness. And even, on a couple of occasions, they would sing of hope. Now that really is ‘anathema’, isn’t it? (!)

What a lot of the fans that the band lost during this period failed to realise was that Anathema were growing as people alongside their music. It was therapy, reflection and exorcism of their demons. Drummer John wrote frankly of his drug addiction in “Make it Right”, Danny confessed his heartbreak at the loss of his mother in “One Last Goodbye”, and ex-bassist Duncan wrote of his paranoia and mistrust of others in “Lost Control” and “Alternative 4”.

But those who didn’t, and still don’t, want Anathema to become optimistic are missing out on a whole new musical experience that the band is offering them. These so-called ‘fans’ don’t want to feel the warmth of new horizons and change in “2000 & Gone”, they refuse to believe that “Temporary Peace” from 2001’s “A Fine Day to Exit” has the comfort of love at its core, and they hate to hear the honesty in Danny’s voice in “Are You There?” from “A Natural Disaster”. If these individuals would just listen to Anathema without any bias or expectation, they would understand that Anathema are sharing with them how they are dealing with the negative feelings, fear and pain they wallowed in for so long. We could all learn a lesson from Anathema on how to feel love at our lowest point.

And that brings me (finally) to “We’re Here Because We’re Here”, Anathema’s new record, that was released on Monday 31st May 2010, just a few short days ago. I can’t contain myself any more: the record’s incredible. It’s a masterpiece. It’s everything the band has been leading up to in their career this far, and it was well worth the 7 year wait. We heard “Everything” back in 2006, and although it brought us hope and was a hint of Anathema’s new mindset, that was all it was: a hint, a whiff of positivity out of context. Then along came “A Simple Mistake”, a track that built up to Anathema’s best guitar riff in years; something for the metalheads to chew. It had this same message of hope, even re-quoting “Shroud of False”, stating “we are not just a moment in time”. Poignant stuff, but it was still not quite evident where Anathema were going with all this.

Then 2 years later along came “Angels Walk Among Us”, which sounded like it had been taken straight from the elegant feedback-laden laments that made up their career defining “Judgement” record, but something was different. The longing was there, but now all of a sudden, and you could hear it in Vinny’s voice, what he longed for was now within his reach. “Only you can heal your life... only you can heal inside...”; the penny dropped: Anathema were not simply embracing hope and rejecting pain; they were accepting everything just the way it was, and this acceptance was bringing with it a certain element in Anathema’s music which had been absent until now: Peace.

A further 2 years and along comes “We’re Here...” and Anathema finally show us what they are capable of. You can hear all the stages of Anathema’s career here; the apocalyptic chords of “Thin Air” and “Universal” hark back as far as “The Silent Enigma”, while the troubled busy arrangements of “Summer Night Horizon” and “Get Off Get Out” are pure “A Fine Day to Exit”. But my god, Anathema have never sounded more alive, more tight as a band, more passionate. Each song builds from a fragile sigh to an impassioned roar, and Vinny in particular never holds back: for the first time his windswept tenor has room to soar and he is no longer afraid to spread his wings.

As much as this album is not as much about hope and eternal life as Anathema would perhaps have you believe, given their prophetic onstage presence, and the two lengthy monologues/interludes on the record, that read very much like sermons, there is one track here that really expresses true happiness. “Dreaming Light” could well be the most affecting piece of music Anathema have ever committed to tape, on a par with “One Last Goodbye” at the very least. A power ballad in structure, a simple 4 chord anthem, but one that has sincerity at its very core, wears its heart on its sleeve, stands naked before you and breathes a sigh of relief, as it has no more fear or pain, and hasn’t got any more secrets to hide.

I see “Dreaming Light” as the final part of a trilogy of Anathema’s truly classic songs. The first being the pain and mourning expressed in “One Last Goodbye”, the second being the desperate confessions of “Are You There?” and here we are at the third: a final goodbye, an acceptance and a pledge to move on and never forget. Call me saccharine and overly sentimental, but hearing is believing. This song will convert even the coldest hearted of cynics.

“We’re Here Because We’re Here” doesn’t dwell on its fears, it confronts them. It’s about accepting what we cannot change, as brutal as the truth may be. For every beacon of love and celebration of life like “Everything”, there is a dark glance back over the shoulder like “Universal”. Even outro “Hindsight” is bittersweet, like the comedown after the battle of despair that was “Violence”, which closed Anathema’s last record. But as “Hindsight” fades away into echoes and distant reflections of sound, a major chord gently lands and carries us to the end of the road. We hear the sound of a band that has discovered itself and its music in an entirely new way.

For a band that, for so long, could not see light at the end of the tunnel, Anathema are no longer the lonely soul’s companion, they are now their saviour.

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